By LEAH STRATMANN
While the number of visitors to the area decreased 21.5 percent from March of 2008 to March of 2009, the news wasn’t all bad, according to records kept by the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) and provided last week at the monthly meeting of TDC.
Filling in for the missing treasurer, executive director Sonny Mares reported that overall revenue so far in 2009 is down 13.3 percent, but for several consecutive years prior to last year there were increases in the numbers every year. “Even with reduced revenue, we are on a par with numbers from 2006 to 2007,” he said.
“The April numbers will reflect spring break numbers and June to September are the heaviest months. I have heard bookings are strong for these months. I think people’s confidence in travel will return,” Mares noted.
Brad Pickel was in attendance to report that the $30 million dollars the state usually derives from documentary (doc) stamps did not materialize last year because of the housing market slump. Previously funds from doc stamps have been allocated to Walton County as part of the state’s matching funds for beach nourishment project. “State agencies are starting to prioritize projects differently. Federal participation has become very important. The state is using that as major criteria for receiving matching state dollars. Without a federal tie-in the possibility of getting state funds is low,” Pickel reported.
Pickel also introduced Howard Marlowe and Josh Gaboton, government affairs consultants hired by the TDC at $58,500 per year to lobby Congress on behalf of the beaches in south Walton, a function the firm has been serving for the last seven years. The overall nourishment plan has been in progress since the TDC first instituted an additional one-cent tax specifically for nourishment in 2002.
“Every year this project has gotten funded to the tune of $2 million over that time. The federal process is long and difficult because the feds require that a national interest be proved before providing funds. For us it is not only important to get the money, but it is important to find out what is being done with the money,” Marlowe said.
Gaboton said, “I have worked on beach projects for nine years on Capitol Hill. When you have a staff person who is willing to spend time with you, you are in pretty good shape. On the funding level, we will probably get a better idea in June of where we stand. It is a good project that is being recognized,” he said.
Marlowe said, “Our job is to keep them on schedule. We needed to get a congressional authorization to start the study. When the study is completed then you can get the money to get the sand on the beach. A Water Resource Development Act is what is needed and they have one of these every couple of years. We have let Congress know there are people from everywhere who come here. Thus helping our beaches helps their constituents as well.”
The lobbying firm collected ZIP codes of all visitors to the area so they could target the elected leaders from those areas on behalf of the beaches in Walton County.
To finish nourishment along critically eroded beaches, at least $40 million is needed. Pickel estimates as much as 65 percent could come from federal and state funds. The extra penny dedicated to beach nourishment is currently being used to pay off the work done in the western part of the county. It was noted that recent stimulus money went to shovel ready projects.
Board member Don McQuade asked, “What is the likelihood we will get the money?”
“Congress likes to continue to fund things they have already funded, so the likelihood is good since they have put $2 million in it already and it has bipartisan support from many members of Congress,” Marlowe said.
The many public beach accesses in the county also help when it comes to federal funding. “You are not going to put federal dollars in places where people can’t get access. It is important. From the federal point of view, you will get more money if there is public access.” Marlowe emphasized.
Council chairman Maurice Gilbert noted the development of accesses also helps to fill the beds on the north sides of the streets near the beach.
In his executive director’s report, Mares noted the TDC would be implementing the one-half cent bed tax increase by the first of October. The extra funds are dedicated to trying to attract a low-cost plane carrier into the area via the airport being built in Panama City. Mares said he was meeting with the Bay County TDC and members of the Bay County Airport Authority to work on strategy and marketing concepts.
Leah Stratmann can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.